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Perhaps Olsen has debunked the myth that a tight end can’t prosper in a Martz offense.
Although Olsen’s regular-season numbers of 41 catches, 404 yards and five touchdowns were lower than his totals from each of the previous two seasons, he became a better all-around tight end this season. When he wasn’t running pass routes, he was an in-line blocker. Sometimes, he even lined up in the backfield and was a lead blocker for running back Matt Forte.
A first-round pick out of Miami in ’07, Olsen acknowledged that his role this season has been a little different from what it was during his first three years in Chicago.
“You have a few more responsibilities,” he said. “A lot more pass protection in the backfield, picking up blitzes, especially on third down, where in the past where maybe you’re running a route. But that’s just as important.
“I take a lot of pride in that, and it feels real good when you pick up somebody on a blitz and Jay has a chance to step up and hit Johnny (Knox), or Devin (Hester), or whoever for a first down. As it’s gone on, I’ve grown to really enjoy that aspect.”
James Jones and Jordy Nelson are big, physical and deceptively fast. Both can make acrobatic catches in traffic or outrun defenders to the pylon.
They're both prototypical No. 1 receivers. But on the Packers' loaded depth chart, they're Aaron Rodgers' third and fourth options. That's why the Packers are now scary good and on the cusp of their first trip to the Super Bowl in 13 years.
"We're dangerous—it's a scary thing," Packers starting wide receiver Driver said. "When all we're clicking, we're unstoppable."
Even though the Packers' starters remain once and current Pro Bowlers Driver and Greg Jennings, their diverse passing attack makes it critical for the Nos. 3 and 4 receivers to contribute. So far, Jones (6-1, 208) and Nelson (6-3, 217) have had a big impact in the playoffs.
Each had a first-half touchdown reception Saturday night in setting the tone for a 48-21 romp at Atlanta. Working to the right edge of the end zone, Jones made a spectacular leaping grab over the shorter Brent Grimes. Two drives earlier, Nelson took a short pass to the left from Rodgers and went diving for the pylon, beating another 5-10 cornerback, Dunta Robinson, on both the catch and run.
When explosive tight end Jermichael Finley was lost for the season with knee injury after Week 5, Green Bay simply leaned on more three-, four- and five-receiver sets with Jones especially seeing increased action. Jones (three) and Nelson (four) even started a handful of games this season.
Against the Bears in Lambeau Field on Jan. 2, Jones and Nelson were held in check, limited to three total catches for 47 yards. Instead, Rodgers kept hitting Jennings and Driver on inside routes for big gains, so the starters figure to get more attention from Chicago on Sunday.
That should leave Jones and Nelson in favorable man-to-man coverage such as they saw last weekend at Atlanta.
The Bears, however, are better equipped to face the Packers. The Bears have much more speed than the Falcons, have bigger cornerbacks and have smarter safeties. Rodgers must make sure to keep all his receivers involved again to meet that challenge.
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Contrasting styles. The defenses couldn’t be more different. The Packers run a 3-4 blitzing scheme while the Bears' 4-3 cover 2 system relies on a four-man rush with little blitzing. Offensively, the Bears can't match the precision passing attack of QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ modified West Coast attack. Even if Bears QB Jay Cutler connects on some big pass plays, he's prone to ill-advised throws for interceptions, especially in the red zone.
WR Greg Jennings. Jennings will be a good measuring stick for the Packers’ offense. If he has big gains early against the Bears’ cover 2, it's a good sign for Rodgers. In his career, Jennings has 18 catches for 323 yards in Packers wins over the Bears and 16 catches for 186 yards in losses. Look for the Packers to match him up against cornerback Tim Jennings and try to get him deep a few times—especially if the Bears switch to one deep safety.
LT Chad Clifton. Green Bay's left tackle has the assignment of handling Julius Peppers. In the first meeting at Chicago, Clifton and the entire Packers offensive line got jumpy, and it contributed to 18 penalties. Clifton fared better in the regular season finale, but Peppers still got consistent pressure on Rodgers. Bottom line: If Clifton is able to control Peppers without a lot of help, the Packers will win easily.
S Nick Collins. It's an accepted fact Cutler is going to throw the ball up for grabs at least a few times, and Collins had several opportunities to pull down picks in both games against the Bears. When Cutler makes the big mistake, it's usually somewhere in the middle of the field or deep middle. That’s where Collins will be.
WR/PR Devin Hester. Special teams play is one major weakness for the Packers. They rank 24th against punt returns, and Hester broke one 62 yards for a critical late TD in the Bears’ 20-17 win at Soldier Field. The Packers ranked 13th against kickoffs but allowed a 102-yard return to Atlanta’s Eric Weems last week. Hester set an NFL season record for highest average on punt returns (17.1), so Packers punter Tim Masthay likely will take aim at the sidelines.
CB D.J. Moore. The Bears' nickel back was challenged on seam routes and by double moves in the regular season finale. Last week, Rodgers picked on Falcons backup nickel back Christopher Owens. Moore's strength is covering the areas in the flat and just beyond the line because he's quicker than he is fast. If Rodgers gets time to challenge him downfield, the result could be a big play. Look for the Packers to use a lot of five-receiver sets to get desired matchups.
RT J'Marcus Webb. With Clay Matthews rushing on Webb’s side, the Bears' rookie right tackle will have his hands full. But that’s not all he’ll have to worry about. The Packers will also run corner blitzes and safety blitzes on the same side, which could be too much for a rookie who has outperformed his seventh-round status. The offensive line is the biggest weakness the Bears have to cover up in this game.
The Bears receive little credit for their 11-5 record and NFC North title, but the team came within a fourth quarter TD of eliminating Green Bay from playoff contention in Week 17, when they had nothing for motivation beyond playing their rivals. And Chicago won the first matchup when the Packers committed 18 penalties.
Nevertheless, Rodgers and Green Bay's passing offense are now operating at peak efficiency and did not in the earlier matchups, when he averaged a pedestrian 7.02 and 8.18 yards per pass attempt.
Poor field conditions on Sunday at Soldier Field should slow the Bears' pass rush and enable Rodgers to continue his postseason run. If the Packers find a way to get rookie James Starks running effectively, it could turn into a blowout. Expect the Bears' offensive line to struggle to keep Cutler from being sacked—and look for Cutler to throw a couple of interceptions. Prediction: Packers 28, Bears 20.
The NFC championship game features not only the NFL’s longest-running rivalry but also two teams that have experienced the extremes as far as injuries this season.
The Bears have only two players on their injured reserve list: linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer and rookie running back Harvey Unga.
The Packers have 15 players on I.R. That includes running back Ryan Grant, linebacker Nick Barnett, tight end Jermichael Finley, offensive tackle Mark Tauscher and rookie cornerback Morgan Burnett—all of them starters in Week 1.
The Packers’ injury situation only underscores the great job coach Mike McCarthy and his staff did this season. Not only did they survive without several key starters, but they also managed to get replacement players to step up and make big contributions.
Among those players were former practice squad running back James Starks (123 yards rushing in a wild-card playoff win over the Eagles), linebacker Erik Walden (three sacks), safety Charlie Peprah (two interceptions) and rookie tackle Brian Bulaga.
The reasoning: Aaron Rodgers is at least a touch better than Jay Cutler. The Bears have lost three times on their home field this year, twice to the less-than-stellar Seahawks and Redskins, and once by 29 points to the Patriots. Plus, the Week 17 matchup in Green Bay was basically a playoff game, and the Bears already lost. That helps.
The concerns: Anybody who's had the misfortune of being within earshot of me over the past few days knows that I'm deeply disappointed that the NFC representative in the Super Bowl may very well be determined by the crappiness of the Soldier Field turf. It is, in every way, shape and form, an absolute atrocity. I've played flag football in snowy parking lots that have better footing. The turf is a true X-factor, and while both teams have to play on it, the Beats do have the benefit of about five game's worth of experience on the muck (I'll give the Chicago crew credit for having decent grass in September, but even that may be a leap of faith).
Another concern is that Green Bay did lose in Chicago earlier in the year, but that was a game littered with dozens and dozens of Packer penalties (18 for 152 yards, to be exact). While it'd be hard to repeat that performance, this is the same team that stupidly stepped on a punt in the first quarter of its first playoff game, so the mistake-prone nature of the Packers will always frighten me.
While we remain a bit wary of Green Bay's ability to put points up on the Chicago D, given their struggles in Week 17, Saturday's freeze-out of not-so-cool MATTY ICE and the gang has made us believers once more. AARON RODGERS throws three TDs, JAMES STARKS keeps making PFW's ANDY HART look smart and the Pack heads for Dallas and the dainty-faced JERRY JONES. As always, though, post-game drinks are on Cutler, so it's win-win. (But not really. 31-17, Cheeseheads.)
If you listen to the so-called NFL expert analysts, you’ll hear many of them call the Packers the hottest team remaining.
Given that a team’s relative “hotness” is as subjective as anything, perhaps it’s more appropriate to describe them as diverse.
Take a look at the following numbers from their playoff victories over Philadelphia and Atlanta, and it’s easy to see why that’s applicable:
♦ They’ve scored nine postseason touchdowns by seven players.
♦ Of the six receiving touchdowns, they’ve been caught by five players.
♦ Ten players have caught at least one pass.
♦ Seven players have 50-plus yards from scrimmage.
So when defensive coordinators sit down and decide who they must take away in order to slow down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense, there’s no right answer.
It’s no easier for opposing offensive coordinators. Defensively, six different players have at least one sack in the two playoff games. And of course, there’s Tramon Williams, who has three interceptions in two games.
The Packers have embraced the underdog role, but that might not work for them anymore.
Ever since they lost that ugly Dec. 12 game at Detroit and were headed to New England to play the Patriots without Rodgers, Mike McCarthy has been using the phrase that they’re “nobody’s underdog.”
They were 2½-point underdogs heading into the wild-card game at Philadelphia and the divisional game at Atlanta.
The mentality that has served them so well might not be applicable anymore. They ended the work week as a 3½-point favorite over the Bears in Sunday’s NFC championship game at Soldier Field, and in fact have been installed as the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the Super Bowl.
But leave it to McCarthy to amend his message, saying this week: “We’re nobody’s favorite, either.”
Tim Masthay vs. Devin Hester
Masthay’s best strategy against Hester would be the one he used last week against the Falcons — to not punt at all. But that’s beyond Masthay’s control. If Masthay has to punt, he’ll have to repeat his career performance from the Week 17 game against the Bears in order to win what will be one of the most important individual battles.
Because the Packers’ offense struggled in that season finale, Masthay had to punt eight times. But because Masthay directionally kicked so well, Hester, the NFL’s career leader in kick returns for touchdowns with 14, could only return two of them.
Both were solid returns — 19 and 16 yards — but neither was a backbreaker. Masthay’s net average was only 36.6 yards, but that didn’t come close to telling the story. Masthay had half of his eight punts downed inside the 20-yard line. His lone touchback came when he was kicking away from Hester in the final minute of the first half.
It is well documented that the Packers have been victorious in four straight must-win games, two to close the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs, followed by two on the road in the postseason in hostile environments.
But the Packers started rolling long before that. Take away the two December losses when quarterback Aaron Rodgers was injured, and they have won nine of their last 10 games.
This is far from a perfect team, as the occasional dropped touchdown passes, special teams breakdowns or close-game losses can attest.
What’s impressive is how they respond when trouble comes their way. They don’t flinch or point fingers.
“I think it’s just the character of the team,” said tackle Bryan Bulaga. “It all starts with Coach McCarthy and everything trickles down from there to the players and leaders in this locker room.”
Packers mistakes led to an early deficit last Saturday in Atlanta and the raucous, salivating fans at the Georgia Dome were sensing a victory for the home team in the divisional playoff game. What the stunned Falcons received instead was the full fury of the Packers’ wrath in getting outscored 41-7 over the final 36 minutes of a 48-21 rout.
The Packers did the same thing to the New York Giants in late December. They outscored their shell-shocked opponent 31-3 over the final 32 minutes in a 45-17 beat-down that ultimately earned the Packers the final NFC playoff berth.
And now it’s the Bears’ turn to try and stop the NFC’s version of a speeding locomotive.
It must be galling for the Bears, who beat out the Packers for the NFC North title this season, to find themselves a 3½-point underdog on their home field. You can bet the rent Bears coach Lovie Smith has been playing that card all week behind closed doors.
But the Packers don’t care what the odds makers or anyone else thinks. They genuinely respect the Bears and understand it will take more than simply showing up on Sunday to win.
“If you’re in a 3-4, you take Matthews,” (Charley) Casserly said. “If you’re in a 4-3, you take Peppers.”
But several of my sources for today’s breakdown of Sunday’s game disagreed. In fact, given Peppers’ rare combination of size and speed, and his ability to defend the run and rush the passer, he could be an excellent end in a 3-4.
“Peppers is a monster,” one source said. “He’s a freak out there. Matthews is a guy you can’t fall asleep on but he’s not the most imposing [player].”
Another source said Matthews is a throwback, the sort of player who is athletic but has a non-stop motor. Make a mistake, and he’ll make you pay.
But Peppers is seemingly from the future, a 6 foot 7, 283-pound man who, on at least two occasions, chased down Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick from behind.
One offensive coach said Peppers “keeps you up at night” because he can wreck a carefully thought out game plan.
“He’s a match up nightmare,” he said.
Matthews had a brilliant season for the Packers. But several players make that defense special, including defensive linemen B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins and cornerback Charles Woodson.
In Chicago, Peppers keys the defense.
“He was the piece they were missing,” one source said. “He makes the people around him better.”
Don’t just look at the most obvious defensive rankings. The Bears were 17th overall, and 23rd against the run and 13 against the pass in 2009. This season, they are ninth overall, 2nd against the run and 20th against the pass.
But he’s been a key factor in points per game dropping from a tie for 21st to fourth, and third-down efficiency from 27th to sixth.
“We thought he was good when he came here,” linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “We watched him play in Carolina and then once he got here he was everything we thought he would be and more.
The problem is, the solution to attacking the Green Bay Packers’ defense isn’t as simple as ‘‘X marks the spot.’’ It’s not one player or even one position group that has made the Packers’ defense so effective heading into Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field. It’s how a secondary that ranks among the league’s best and a pass rush that produced the NFL’s second-highest sack total complement each other that makes this a difficult matchup.
Physical corners who latch onto Bears receivers, coupled with a relentless pass rush, helped the Packers limit the Bears to 23 points while sacking quarterback Jay Cutler nine times in two games this season.
‘‘They obviously are the best in the league at bump-and-run and pressing and getting ahold of that receiver,’’ Martz said. ‘‘They do a great job at that. They are well-schooled in all the details of doing that.
‘‘You have to have a plan. As a wide receiver, you’ve got to go into that game with a plan for how you’re going to deal with that. Some of it we can use formations and help, but by and large, it’s a technique issue that you have to resolve.’’
Tramon Williams, who leads the Packers with six interceptions, keeps making the kind of plays that turn games in Green Bay’s favor. Charles Woodson isn’t playing as well as he did when he was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, but he moves seamlessly from cornerback to the slot, and his frequent blitzing gave the Bears fits in the regular-season finale at Lambeau Field.
There still will be individual matchups that Martz will try to exploit. Look for him to try to isolate Packers nickel back Sam Shields, for example. But the key to cracking the Packers’ complicated code hinges on either making sure Cutler has more time to throw or Bears receivers getting open faster.
But at Lambeau Field on Jan. 2, with the Packers desperately needing a victory to make the playoffs, they shut out (Johnny) Knox and won 10-3. It was the first time all season and second time in two seasons that Knox was held without a reception.
‘‘It was just good defense, good all-around defense,’’ Woodson said. ‘‘Our thing is to take care of vertical routes, not allow people to get over the top of us and try to eliminate those big plays.
‘‘We got some good pressure up front with our guys, limited the time that Jay had back there to throw the ball, and then made some plays downfield. It’s always about designing to try to stop their players from having big days.’’
Since Capers became their defensive coordinator last year, the Packers have been pretty good at shutting down wide receivers. Woodson added another Pro Bowl to his Hall of Fame resumé, with 105 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, five forced fumbles and 13 pass breakups.
Cornerback Tramon Williams had six interceptions and 23 pass breakups. Free safety Nick Collins made the Pro Bowl for the third consecutive season. And two newcomers, strong safety Charlie Peprah and rookie cornerback Sam Shields, have fit in well in Capers’ system — seemingly always at the right place at the right time.
The secret to their success is their ability to be aggressive and physical without losing their discipline. They’re athletic, smart and well-coached.
Williams has been known to ‘‘bait’’ quarterbacks into throwing interceptions. He was asked if he could risk baiting Cutler that way in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
‘‘I don’t really ‘risk’ doing it against anybody,’’ Williams said. ‘‘It’s just things that I’m aware of and playing disciplined at the same time, but playing with the awareness that this can be coming in. If I know it’s coming, then I’m going to react to it.’’
The Packers’ defensive backs aren’t flawless, but they never seem to get burned too badly. Against the Giants, Manningham had an 85-yard touchdown catch and Hakeem Nicks caught a 36-yard touchdown — but the Packers won in a rout 45-17.
Against the Lions, Calvin Johnson caught touchdown passes for 23 and 21 yards in the first half and drew a pass interference call against Woodson early in the third quarter. Two plays later, Woodson intercepted a pass intended for Johnson and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown. The Packers won 28-26.
If the Bears receivers want to beat them, they’re going to have to out-tough them because the Packers’ defensive backs will be as physical as they can be Sunday.
‘‘It’s important [to be physical] any time you play an offense that is based on rhythm in the passing game to knock their receivers off their rhythm,’’ Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. ‘‘So you want to be physical with them, get your hands on them. That’s where you want to play every week and where we plan on playing this week.’’